by Karl H. Kazaks
Great wine isn’t the only thing that’s made in the vineyard. Sometimes, great winemaking careers are born in the vines, too.
Vinny Aliperti, owner and winemaker at Billsboro Winery and winemaker at Atwater Estate Vineyards — both situated near Seneca Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes region — began his career in the wine industry working in the vineyards at Wölffer Estate, on Long Island.
“Originally I thought the vineyards is where I wanted to be,” Aliperti said. “But as it turns out the cellar won out.”
Aliperti spent three years apprenticing in the cellars at Wölffer, learning the fundamentals of winemaking from Roman Roth, Wölffer’s long-time winemaker.
“He got me off on the right foot,” Aliperti said.
In 2000 Aliperti moved to the Finger Lakes to be Assistant Winemaker at Hermann J. Wiemer. A year later, he moved to the newly established Atwater Vineyards, where today he makes 7,000 cases of wine from over a dozen grape varieties.
Aliperti and his wife Kim have been running Billsboro Winery since 2007. Its tasting room is five miles south of Geneva, on the east side of Seneca Lake, in a renovated old barn. He makes Billsboro’s wine at Atwater’s facilities.
Billsboro currently makes 3,000 cases of wine a year, up from 1200 cases in 2007. Aliperti buys all of his fruit, with 90 percent of it coming from Sawmill Creek Vineyards. He uses almost exclusively vinifera varieties, though he does make a table white from Vidal Blanc and Cayuga and an ice wine from Vignoles.
Eighty percent of Billsboro’s production is sold from the tasting room, with the rest going to local businesses and via wholesalers throughout New York state.
Aliperti has been able to grow the production of Billsboro wines thanks to creative marketing strategies.
“The days of build it and they will come are over,” he said.
As more and more wineries get established, there is increasing competition for consumers’ attention. Billsboro has been able to create a following for its wines by attracting visitors with a series of unique events.
Every August, Billsboro hosts a Plein Air Festival, a juried art competition in which a maximum of 25 artists spend two days painting outdoors around the Finger Lakes. The artwork they make is offered at a silent auction at a Saturday evening Gala Reception. The painting which won first prize in this year — ‘To the Lake,’ by George Van Hook — sold at the reception for $1225.
Twice a month during the spring, summer and fall, Billsboro holds Pizza on the Patio, with a pizza made to order from a gastropub in Geneva (The Red Dove Tavern).
“It’s a great way of getting people in the door you might not see otherwise,” Aliperti said.
About twice a month Billsboro also transforms its tasting room into a space for private parties such as rehearsal wedding dinners. The space, which can accommodate about 60 people, is favored for such occasions due to its quaint feel and views of Seneca Lake.
Aliperti has been able to drive the events side of his business, he said, by working with local restaurants and caterers. “The reciprocal nature of working with local businesses is obvious,” he said.
Billsboro has recently renovated a room behind its tasting room into a private events space capable of seating about 30 people. Aliperti is looking forward to using the space for his regular vertical tastings. Three or four times a year he opens wines from various vintages coming back to Billsboro’s first vintage in 2007.
“I love those events,” Aliperti said. “It helps me understand personally if what I’ve been doing in the cellar makes sense.”
Aliperti’s goal is to make bright fresh wines (reds as well as whites) that have good acidity and can be long-lived. Given the northern location of his winery, rarely does he have to acidify.
He picks whites “fresh and early” but does let the reds hang longer, without waiting so long that he risks sacrificing the integrity of their varietal characteristics. In the same manner, Aliperti is quick to press off and approaches maceration delicately, preferring to preserve fruit character and avoiding overly astringent or tannic wines.
Aliperti is fairly non-interventionist when it comes to his dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris.
“It’s all about picking at the right time and working clean,” he said. He uses all stainless for those wines and very little blending — though he does add 10 percent Albarino to his Sauvignon Blanc (which, being mineral-driven, he likens more to a Sancerre than a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc — a function both of his location and his earlier-rather-than-later harvest decisions).
His Chardonnays are more crafted than those other whites. His goal with Chardonnay is to layer flavors and thus uses both steel and oak. He ferments 20 percent of his Chardonnay on the skin, to add mouthfeel and weight.
“I’ve had good results with it,” he said. “It gets no astringency. That’s why it works.”
In addition to the dry whites, he also makes a medium-sweet Riesling, a dry rosé, and the table white and ice wine.
Billsboro makes three dry reds: Syrah (usually blended with a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon), Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir. These he makes in a lower-alcohol, restrained, old-world style.
“The wines age beautifully,” he said. He gives credit for that fact — and the quality of his wines generally — to his grower, Sawmill Creek Vineyards.
Aliperti considers it fortunate to be located so close to the Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, where so much important and groundbreaking wine and grape research has been performed.
“The station has definitely been instrumental in growing the area,” Aliperti said, with its research programs and outreach efforts — as well as the prestige it bestows on the region’s wine industry. Aliperti also noted that the Finger Lakes Community College has responded to the growth of the community’s wine industry by developing a viticulture program.
The role of experimentation in developing the Finger Lakes wine industry is important, Aliperti said.
“We know Riesling works well, we know Cab Franc works great, but we’re still exploring other varieties. Grüner Veltliner, Zweigelt are catching on. There’s still plenty of undiscovered terrain.
“It’s a pretty exciting time for the Finger Lakes.”
Billsboro Winery uses creative marketing to grow business alongside Seneca Lake
by Karl H. Kazaks